RAFAEL Nadal is looking forward to taking on his Davis Cup team-mate in the Australian Open semi-finals and expects Fernando Verdasco to provide by far his sternest challenge so far.
Spain's world No1 has played his 25-year-old compatriot six times and dropped just one set to him. But after watching Verdasco's defeat of world No4 Andy Murray in the fourth round and his quarter-final triumph against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Melbourne yesterday, Nadal is expecting a great deal more from his friend when they take to Rod Laver Arena tomorrow.
"It's always good to play against a Spanish player in the semi-finals of a grand slam," Nadal said. "It's very good news for us because one player is going to be in the final. But Fernando is playing at his best level. I've never played against him when he has been playing at the level he is right now. He's beaten Murray and beaten Tsonga. Sometimes in the past he made some mistakes at important moments and he lost a little bit of concentration. But right now he's changed that.
"I saw his two matches against Murray and Tsonga. He was very focused all the time and knew what he wanted to do all the time, so it will be very tough."
Nadal has progressed to the last four without dropping a set for the second successive year but still believes he has things he can work on.
"I think I have more things that I can do than a few years ago. I can slice a little bit more, I can go a little bit more to the net and I am playing a little bit better inside the court," he explained. "Those are the things that I am improving, or trying to improve. The serve, I improved, but for sure, I need to improve more."
Whether or not Gilles Simon would agree with that is debatable after he lost 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 in their quarter-final under a closed roof in Rod Laver Arena.
Simon had several chances throughout the match to break the Spaniard's serve – including a set point in the second set – but could not always make them count. In the first set he was broken in the first, fifth and seventh games as he found himself firing too wide, too long or into the net because of the pressure of trying to play catch-up.
The second was far tighter as Simon was able to claw back the early break he suffered to level things. But in the 11th game he succumbed again and Nadal served out the set.
The top seed was quickly up a break in the third but again Simon responded in kind – an overhead smash getting him back to 3-3.
A beautiful lob that left Nadal stranded and an ace ensured Simon held serve and again Nadal had to dig himself out of trouble, relying on a loose forehand shot by his opponent to maintain the status quo.
The pair traded service games until a pivotal moment in the tenth game when Simon double-faulted for the fourth time in the match and then sent a backhand into the net. It gave Nadal the hint of a chance and he needed no second invitation.
"Sometimes just one point or two points different and the match can change," lamented Simon. "I had a set point. Even then I had no chance because he hit a good serve, and then he hits the forehand. But I think I did what I had to do on the court.He didn't miss anything."
After sending Murray packing in the fourth round, Verdasco, the left-handed Spaniard, added last year's runner-up Tsonga to his list of conquests. As he had against Murray, the Spaniard blasted his opponent off the court with his bullet-like serves and superb winners.
The first set was extremely tight and Verdasco, whose first serve faltered early on, had to stave off three break points in the seventh game to remain on level terms. Every time Tsonga, who had also lost his only previous meeting with Verdasco, looked to edge ahead, unforced errors kept him in check – he made 20 alone in the first set. It reached a tie-break and Verdasco fired down two aces and a superb passing shot by a rooted Tsonga, whose errors helped the Spaniard to a 7-2 score.
It was the Frenchman who got the early lead in the second set when Verdasco fired a volley well wide. When the fifth seed held his serve in the next game he was 5-2 up and eventually served out the set, taking it when Verdasco found the net with a forehand.
The third set was all Verdasco though, as his serve became more and more difficult for Tsonga to return. The Frenchman was broken in the second game and the fourth before clawing back a game to trail 4-1. There was the odd flash of brilliance, like a well-placed passing shot on the run and a moment of magic when he returned the ball through his legs, but they were few and far between.
Having got back to 4-2 he could not convert two separate break point opportunities and was unable to save the third set.
Tsonga was down an early break in the fourth too, passed up a break chance in the sixth game and was broken again in the seventh, allowing Verdasco to serve for the match which he did, fittingly, with an ace.
Men's Singles Quarter-finals: (1) R Nadal (Spa) bt (6) G Simon (Fra) 6-2 7-5 7-5, (14) F Verdasco (Spa) bt (5) J-W Tsonga (Fra) 7-6 (7-2) 3-6 6-3 6-2.
Women's Singles Quarter-finals: (4) E Dementieva (Rus) bt C Suarez-Navarro (Spa) 6-2 6-2, (2) S Williams (USA) bt (8) S Kuznetsova (Rus) 5-7 7-5 6-1.
Men's Doubles Quarter-finals: (4) L Dlouhy (Cze) & L Paes (Ind) bt S Bolelli (Ita) & A Seppi (Ita) 6-1 7-6 (7-5), (2) B Bryan (USA) & M Bryan (USA) bt M Fish (USA) & J Isner (USA) 7-5 7-6 (8-6).
Mixed Doubles Quarter-finals: (7) A Medina Garrigues (Spa) & T Robredo (Spa) bt P Schnyder (Swi) & W Moodie (Rsa) 5-7 6-4 12-10, N Dechy (Fra) & A Ram (Isr) bt D Cibulkova (Svk) & J Melzer (Aut) 7-5 6-1, S Mirza (Ind) & M Bhupathi (Ind) bt A Wozniak (Can) & D Nestor (Can) 3-6 6-4 10-5.
Girl's Singles 3rd rd: (5) L Robson (Gbr) bt S Njiric (Cro) 6-4 6-2, (9) H Watson (Gbr) bt M Inoue (Jpn) 7-6 (7-1) 4-6 6-4.